As Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins noted at the time of the deal, Memphis' decision to trade Rudy Gay in late January created a point of transition for a potential contender. It invited change into a locker room that had thrived on stability and nudged one of the better teams in the league out of its long-standing comfort zone. The Grizzlies were the league leaders in grit and grind and, with Gay's scoring boost, had proved capable of grappling with the NBA's elite. To remove such a prominent piece would test their structural stability as a team, creating roster stress from what was in theory a bit of salary-cap management.
It was a pivotal move for a new owner and a cast of new executives, and it has paid off beautifully in the 2013 postseason. This hasn't been a lateral exchange -- as analysts most optimistic about the deal insisted at the time -- but an altogether beneficial shift in solidifying the Grizzlies' offensive identity. Memphis is no more explosive in scoring than it was before the trade, but it has distilled its offense to the point of being far steadier. As it turns out, Gay was the living, shot-forcing embodiment of opportunity cost, with every bit of his production coming by way of a greater price.
These Grizzlies are definitively better than the Memphis team -- led by Gay in minutes, field-goal attempts and points per game -- that lost in the first round a season ago. They execute more evenly (the Grizzlies have scored 105.5 points per 100 possessions in this year's playoffs compared with 99.6 in the 2012 postseason), shoot more accurately (they've posted an playoff effective field-goal percentage of 47.3, up from 44.9 last year) and even defend more aggressively. But still, it would be unkind and inaccurate to say that the Grizzlies have improved because of Gay's exodus, though the trade certainly served as a mechanism for Memphis' evolution.
Gay was and is a fine player. He isn't fundamentally selfish or any kind of inherent drain. But he no longer made sense for the Grizzlies from a financial standpoint and unknowingly stood in the way of what this team might someday become. Gay's high-usage style is what allows him to contribute as a scorer, but through those same means he had nudged Marc Gasol and Mike Conley into roles that were too slim and too safe. Neither Gasol nor Conley had shown much willingness to upset Memphis' internal order and had contributed to the team's offensive struggles with deferential shot selection. Though they likely had the team's best interests in mind, Gasol and Conley held the Grizzlies back by holding themselves back -- content to be play ancillary roles while Gay indulged on fadeaway jumpers.
For that reason, it's far more fitting to credit the Grizzlies' development to Gasol's and Conley's joint arrival. Both have improved over the past year to earn the latitude they've been given and helped Memphis pull within two wins of the Western Conference finals.
Accounting for Gay's touches and shots naturally required some adjustment, but the Grizzlies' improvement is not a function of simply funneling attempts to a more efficient scorer. Gasol, Conley and Zach Randolph have all shot more frequently since the trade, but the real benefit comes by removing the tangential imprint of Gay's offense.
Much has been made of the value that a scorer like Gay provides in tough, end-of-clock situations, where the ability to manufacture even a decent shot against a locked-in defender could prove to be the difference between a win or a loss. There's little question that Gay was a valuable bailout option for a team that often had trouble creating quickly in the 2012 postseason. Still, that line of thinking didn't give enough weight to how Gay's presence on the floor might have contributed to those bailouts being necessary in the first place.
Memphis is quite famously a team that takes its time in initiating offense (Hollins' team ranked 29th in pace during the regular season), but Gay was among the most guilty parties. His over-dribbling, disinterested cutting and slow entry passes made it difficult for the Grizzlies to get the ball to Randolph or Gasol on the block and limited the effectiveness of both by forcing two deliberate players to work against a drained shot clock. One example from the 2012 playoffs in which Gay is implicit, but not solely responsible:
Gay ultimately salvages that possession on a tough shot, but only after Gasol failed to fight through the defense to get to the right block and after most of the shot clock had already been frittered away. This was the problem with Memphis on the whole throughout the 2011-12 regular season and playoffs: The offensive flow was so phlegmatic that the Grizzlies needed to be bailed out far more than was really necessary, a problem to which Gay contributed:
Conley was unfortunately of little help in that regard in last year’s postseason, as he was noticeably tentative when initiating sets -- perhaps in part because of the defensive hell unleashed on him by Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe. What the Grizzlies needed was a thorough decongestant, and they've gone about filling that prescription by refining their offense to its most crucial elements. Adding more three-point shooters (even average ones, like Quincy Pondexter and Keyon Dooling) has helped clear things up for this current team, but removing Gay created an opportunity for more high-low play between Randolph and Gasol, more driving from a more assertive Conley and more consistent off-ball movement from role players. It instilled a slow-motion offense with a sense of urgency and allows the Grizzlies to better do what they do best.
Memphis' pace is still plodding (10th among postseason teams), but Conley and Jerryd Bayless are at the very least more mindful of the clock, while Gasol and Randolph aid the effort by getting down the court and establishing good position more quickly. Notice the contrast in this clip compared with those above:
The Grizzlies get the ball up court, Dooling makes a quick entry and a hard cut and Gasol has an entire side of the floor to himself with 15 seconds on the shot clock. Post-up teams have no choice but to be thrifty with every second, as the opportunities opened up by establishing Gasol on the block may come by way of an open cutter or shooter later in the shot clock. Here's another, nearly identical sequence:
Again: Nothing flashy going on here. This is merely a sensible evolution and a strategic alteration inspired by Gay's absence. Without that bailout option, this team has little choice but to move more faster and to survey the full spread of possibilities opened up by quickly feeding Gasol or Randolph in the post when possible.
Additionally, there's now time to execute multiple post-ups on a single possession should the first break down. There's also spacing necessary for the Grizzlies' big men to create quality shots on a regular basis. These Grizzlies are simply better at doing what they do best; according to NBA.com, the Grizzlies are averaging more shots in the restricted area and converting more in the playoffs (58.8 percent compared with 54.1 percent) than they did last season. They still take their share of mid-range looks and still have to make do when the clock winds down, but Gasol and Randolph have been given more room (via perimeter shooting, which is also up significantly in terms of percentages) and more time to operate.
In that, the greatest benefit of Gay's absence isn't in taking away shots from one player and giving them to another, but in cleaning up the looks that the Grizzlies' offense has long aimed to produce. Memphis is getting more shot attempts out of the low block, sure, but those touches were there against the Clippers last May and throughout the first few months of the 2012-13 regular season. They just didn't come as cleanly or quickly with Gay on the court, if only because of the minor ways in which he strained the Grizzlies offensively. His scoring helped, particularly through those late-clock attempts that redeemed wayward possessions. But Memphis is producing fewer and fewer instances of shot-clock-squandering plays these days, in part because of the relief that its roster shift provides. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.